Book Review: Palimpsests by Max Sher
Max Sher’s second book Palimpsests is a photographic exploration of post-Soviet built environment from the perspective of the everyday, and discarding the exotic visual tropes of power that dominate the narrative about this area. Photographed between 2010 and 2017 in over 70 urban locations in five post-Soviet countries, it captures the most mundane and typical elements of landscape — supermarkets, industrial areas, office blocks and housing of various types and times, private homes, schools, stations, government buildings, and infrastructure that could be seen in almost any locality across the ex-Soviet Union.
Images from this project/book are included in the ‘Land, Sea, Air’ issue this month (August-September 2018). His images have been self-described as a depiction of a Radical Other, or an Otherworldly Neverland. Sher sets out to break the myths surrounding the exotic attraction of what outsiders potentially believe about Russia. Instead of stereotypic tropes, Sher strives to capture the mundane — but for very specific reasons. When asked in an interview about the project, Sher commented:
“I believe the mundane, the imagery of the mundane, is what makes you feel at home anywhere. It can demystify and de-exoticize any place; it defends you from myths and constructions imposed on you by the powers that be, be it capital/marketing or political regimes, irrespective of whether they are “democratic” or “authoritarian”.
The term Palimpsests has popped up twice in the past month for me. I saw this as a sign that the topic should be explored. The word refers to a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain. Or, as it is more applicable in Sher’s use: something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Sher’s present-day scenes of a post-Soviet Russia are a direct product of the prior era. The traces remain of an era where much about the U.S.S.R. was not known to the West. The perception of a hidden, exotic land was forged, or more specifically, the world was given the view of whatever the Soviet leaders wanted to show. This authoritarian approach took away the power of its own people to lay claim to their own sense of place. This ultimately led to the tropes and stereotypes that Sher photographically confronted. In speaking about the subject of the perception of Russia, Sher recalled:
“In Soviet photography, the category of the everyday was completely out of focus, erased, it was almost nonexistent between early 1930s and late 1980s. There were the times when taking pictures in the street, let alone of the infrastructure, was tantamount to spying. That was the reason why, in part, this whole category, the everyday, was virtually absent from people’s imagination, including mine.”
This project has become a way for Sher to symbolically reclaim the viewpoint; to re-write the narrative over the surface of the previously held viewpoint. This is an important undertaking for a person who is a product of an authoritarian society — for which the public space is still by and large the space and the product of power.
Palimpsests by Max Sher
Published by Ad Marginem with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Essays in English and Russian by Kate Bush, Curator of Photography at Tate Britain,
and Max Trudolubov, author of books on post-Soviet landscape and politics, and a foreword by Nuria Fatykhova, coordinator, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Russland.
160 pages, 116 color photographs
Embossed cloth hardcover
Publication date: January 2018
Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.